(L-R) Chris du Plessis from Surgitech, DR Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors with Shamwari’s vet nurse Megan Sinclaire performing the reconstruction of the face of Hope the rhino. Her face was hacked off by poachers but she survived. Picture: Itumeleng English
(L-R) Chris du Plessis from Surgitech, DR Johan Marais from Saving the Survivors with Shamwari’s vet nurse Megan Sinclaire performing the reconstruction of the face of Hope the rhino. Her face was hacked off by poachers but she survived. Picture: Itumeleng English

Hope the rhino gets pioneering surgery

By Sheree Bega Time of article published May 3, 2016

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Limpopo - Shoelaces on steroids. That's how Suzanne Boswell Rudham described Tuesday's groundbreaking procedure using human abdominal surgery technology to stretch the skin of the world's most famous rhino, Hope.

The Saving the Survivors team member joined a team of top wildlife vets on a Limpopo plot of land, where they gingerly stitched the elastymers, imported from Canada, on to Hope's battered face.

They are hoping that it will heal the massive wound, which happened when poachers hacked off almost all of her face last May.

But the world-famous animal with the indomitable spirit has clung to life - and has become an ambassador for the conservation of her ever-threatened species, Johan Marais, a wildlife vet and founder of Saving the Survivors, told a small group of onlookers gathered around him and his team.

In a procedure that lasted just over an hour, they inserted pulley systems in Hope’s skin to "crank the laces" to close the massive cavity on her face.

In Hope's latest procedure - she has already had five major surgeries and other smaller ones - they used an abdominal reapproximation anchor system, imported from Canada by local distributors Surgitech.

"Basically it's developed for people who've had stomach surgery where they can't close the wound," Rudham explained. "Whereas before they used it to stitch it and staple it, now this system... actually pulls in the tissue without destroying any cells."

 

In the past year, 60% of Hope's face has healed, but she's not out of the woods yet, explains Marais.

Hope’s gaping wound is constantly attacked by flies and maggots. "We're hoping to make that cavity a lot closer and then we'll put a wound matrix over that with collagen for the cells to start growing together," adds Rudham.

After the procedure, the bandaged rhino chased Marais out of her boma. "That's hope - she's very feisty," he laughs. "Now we know she's fine because she's back to herself.

"The question of whether it will work, we'll see - two weeks will tell. If she just doesn't rip it off."

Hope has already had a steel plate inserted over her wound to protect it, and elephant skin placed over it. But it never lasts because she rips it off.

"Anything, you name it, she's destroyed it ... But she's a strong girl. These rhinos are fighters, they are the most resilient. They are prehistoric because they just don't give up. She's amazing."

Tuesday morning's procedure was similar to the one conducted on burn wound victim Pippie Kruger.

Little Pippie, who had suffered burns on her chest, arms, face, thighs, head and parts of her back, crossed the frontier of cutting-edge medicine in 2012 by becoming the first South African to have plastic-like sheets of her own skin, grown for her in a US lab in Boston, delicately grafted on to her wounded body.

In the case of Hope, elephant skin was grown to replace the rhino's skin.

On choosing elephant skin, Marais said: “We were looking for a long time for a material that’s strong, lightweight, but pliable that you can conform to a wound. We were struggling over the past eight months to get a material like that.

“We tried several, but none worked. They were all too rigid. Kudu skin had the same thickness as elephant skin, but the orthopaedic wire we use tore through it. Hippo skin was way too thick and couldn’t conform. Then we tried elephant skin, it was really strong. You can put the orthopaedic wire through it and it doesn’t tear out. "

Chris du Plessis, a product manager at Surgitech, who helped place the elastymer on her face, is hopeful it will work. "Look, it's never been used on any animal, and never on a rhino."

The Canadian firm donated the product to help save Hope's life.

Gazing at Hope, Marais added: "Hope has thrown a spotlight on rhino poaching in South Africa and she has become an ambassador for the rhino crisis."

The Star

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